Handle With Care: Jewelers Share Their Tips for Tackling Sticky Retail Situations

“There is only one boss—the customer,” Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton famously wrote. “And he can fire everyone in the company from the chairman on down, simply by ­spending his money somewhere else.”

Walton was a titan of industry, but his sentiment rings especially true for independent retailers, whose businesses are based on the quality and quantity of their customer relationships.

A well-oiled customer service machine maintains and augments a retailer’s stable of good clients. But the practiced graciousness of even the most experienced sales manager can be tested by the demeanor or demands of a cranky or ill-informed customer. Below, a handful of fine jewelers share how they cope with some of retail’s stickiest quandaries.

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Ring shoppers are notoriously nervous.
Think of it this way: You’re helping him pick a ring, not selling him a ring.

1. What’s the best way to calm the nerves of an anxious engagement ring shopper?
“We try to not make them feel like we’re ­trying to sell them something, but that we’re trying to help them. If the gentleman comes in by himself, I ask him if she’s given him any hints. If they come together, we stay more behind the counter and let them look. She’ll ­eventually develop a pattern of things she likes.”
Cindy Kelley, saleswoman, Pounder’s Jewelers, Spokane, Wash.

“Keep the interaction light, join them in celebrating the excitement of getting engaged, and let them relax by talking as much as possible…and try as quickly as possible to get three-dimensional, real rings in their hands.”
Chris Scoville, owner, Scoville Jewelers, Glens Falls, N.Y.

2. How do you reeducate customers who think they know about diamonds, but don’t?
“We don’t overeducate because I think that could get you in some trouble. We show them the true, accurate grading of quality diamonds and [tell them to] forget what they have learned on the Internet—it’s time to see it with their own eyes.”
Randy Mitchum, owner, Mitchum Jewelers, Ozark, Mo.

“You want to balance their information with accuracy. You don’t want to patronize your customer or demean what they’ve taken the time to learn. I try to show them the differences in colors, ­clarity, etc. I try to be very respectful and cautious.
George Betts, manager, M. Lemp Jewelers, Syracuse, N.Y.

“Show them two different stones of the same clarity and color. There can be a huge difference in the cost of the stone and the look of the stone.”
Richard “Brooks” Ogden, owner, R. Brooks Fine Jewelry, Walnut Creek, Calif.

3. How do you deal with a shopper who’s trying to haggle?
“With humor. If they say, ‘Can you take off 20 percent?’ I say, ‘Why don’t I get out my pliers and cut off 20 percent of this ring?’?”
Diane Garmendia, owner, 33 Jewels, Santa Barbara, Calif.

“We try to be firm in our prices, but it becomes a matter of dealing realistically in a competitive market. Some pieces are not subject to negotiation—certain designer lines. If we’re considering a piece we have had for a long time, there may be more flexibility.”
George Betts, manager, M. Lemp Jewelers, Syracuse, N.Y.

“In our diamond room and in our engagement room we have our suggested retail appraisal price and our best price on each ring. Since we’ve been doing that, there has been very little or no haggling. We stick to it and tell them that’s really our best price.”
Linda Bowman O’Dell, owner, Bowman ­Jewelers, Johnson City, Tenn.

4. How do you explain to customers the high price of gold?
“I focus on the fact that it is a commodity…and the world marketplace fluctuates. Bring into the conversation that this is something you will have for your whole life and pass on to other generations.”
Diane Garmendia, owner, 33 Jewels, Santa Barbara, Calif.

“We tell them it’s based on market value. Whether you’re looking at the price of stocks or metals, it’s public. The bigger issue comes if you have a customer and the necklace they bought a few years ago was $300 and now they want a bracelet to go with it. They are shocked to find it is more expensive. Sometimes it becomes an opportunity to sell a different item—a pearl piece or something more stone-intense.”
George Betts, manager, M. Lemp Jewelers, Syracuse, N.Y.

5. How do you handle an angry customer?
“We ask, ‘How can we make you feel better about this?’ I’d rather take a loss, if necessary, than have an angry customer out there bad-mouthing us or spreading angry comments about us.”
Deborah Swinney, vice president, production, Devon Fine Jewelry, Wykoff, N.J.

“I don’t think the customer is always right, honestly. Our first objective is to kill them with kindness. And if it’s going nowhere, I’m happy to tell people, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re not the store for you. You need to be someone else’s problem.’?”
Randy Mitchum, owner, Mitchum Jewelers, Ozark, Mo.

“I have educated my staff to calm a customer by going overboard in apologizing. Not accepting blame, but providing a solution. Once a woman who bought a $55,000 ring brought it back in a week ­completely destroyed. It looked like it had been run over by a car. I said, ‘Gee, that must have really hurt your hand,’ but she still maintained she didn’t know what happened to it. We bent it back out and fixed it. Then I brought a bottle of wine with the ring to her home.”
Diane Garmendia, owner, 33 Jewels, Santa Barbara, Calif.

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Try to make “a connection” with the customer—they can’t do that on the Internet.

6. How do you deal with customers who are obviously showrooming?
“Usually you can tell who they are. I like to let them gently know that I know they’re doing this. I suggest that if they buy a piece from somewhere else, that they send me an email so I can guarantee they are getting the right price.”  
Diane Garmendia, owner, 33 Jewels, Santa Barbara, Calif.

“We try to impress them with one item and just develop…a ­connection with them where they feel comfortable buying from us, rather than from another store on the Internet.”
Randy Mitchum, owner, Mitchum Jewelers, Ozark, Mo.

“One of the things that I do when someone mentions they want to buy something online is explain, ‘You can’t see a loose diamond online unless you pay for it up front. You can’t really see the clarity or the quality. I can show you 10 of them and you don’t have to pay for them up front to see them.’?”
George Betts, manager, M. Lemp Jewelers, Syracuse, N.Y.

7. What are your most effective tools for ­closing a sale?
“I get involved in all sales just to…show them I’m the owner and I’m interested. We flat out ask, ‘What’s it going to take? What do we need to do to make this happen? What price range is ­comfortable for you?’ And we make it work. We don’t stop. We will just not give up until it’s done.”
Randy Mitchum, owner, Mitchum Jewelers, Ozark, Mo.

“One customer said to me, ‘I love this ring, it’s right in my price range, but I don’t know what to do.’ I just said, ‘So buy it.’ And they did.”
Richard “Brooks” Ogden, owner, R. Brooks Fine Jewelry, Walnut Creek, Calif.

8. How do you help an indecisive customer come to a decision?
“We try not to show too many rings at once. We’ll show three and ask, ‘Which of these do you like best?’ That way, even if they feel they don’t know anything about jewelry, you’re showing them that they do know what they like.”
Linda Bowman O’Dell, owner, Bowman ­Jewelers, Johnson City, Tenn.

“Process of elimination is big. We never try to overwhelm them. And we try to offer form of payment right away if we need to suggest financing. In terms of diamonds, we encourage them to take the diamond into different lighting. We even take them outside in the parking lot.”
Randy Mitchum, owner, Mitchum Jewelers, Ozark, Mo.

“Almost like an eye doctor I’ll ask, ‘Do you like it this way or that way?’ Once I see what their eye is attracted to, we can focus down on what we offer.”
George Betts, manager, M. Lemp Jewelers, Syracuse, N.Y.

9. How do you deal with customers looking to return a custom-made or final-sale item?
“If it’s something we think we could resell, we could perhaps trade it for another ring that we have in the store. We won’t make another custom ring for them, but we let them consider our rings that are already made.”
Linda Bowman O’Dell, owner, Bowman ­Jewelers, Johnson City, Tenn.

“Make sure when you sell the item the customer is completely sure of the terms, no matter what they have purchased. However, we do try to do some kind of ­accommodation. It depends on the marketability of the piece. A ­customer’s history with us could also be a factor in our flexibility.”
George Betts, manager, M. Lemp Jewelers, Syracuse, N.Y.

“One fellow painstakingly laid out a ring—picking the stones, the design, everything. His fiancée came in the next day in tears. She said this was probably the only time in her life that she would have a ring of this quality and she hated it. I wound up scrapping the entire ring and re-created another one. They wrote glowing reviews on the Web about us.”  
Diane Garmendia, owner, 33 Jewels, Santa Barbara, Calif.

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Process of elimination: a tried-and-true closing technique

10. How do you help ­shoppers intimidated by the ­jewelry-buying process (and your store) feel more comfortable?
“We sit down and visit with them like you would a friend. If you’re at ease with the process, that puts them more at ease.”
Cindy Kelley, saleswoman, Pounder’s Jewelers, Spokane, Wash.

“This particularly happens with men. You can see the fear in their eyes when they walk into the store. ­Distract them. Talk about the weather or their car. Get their guard down and just talk normally with them.”
Deborah Swinney, vice president, production, Devon Fine Jewelry, Wykoff, N.J.

“I make my store comfortable. I don’t attack people. I have M&Ms.”
Richard “Brooks” Ogden, owner, R. Brooks Fine Jewelry, Walnut Creek, Calif.